Last Wednesday, Arizona head coach Sean Miller lashed out in frustration after his team’s 74-69 win over Stanford, complaining about his players’ lack of defensive and rebounding efforts. He cited the fact that so many Wildcats seem to assume they are NBA-bound just because they are significant players at Arizona, while many of those exact players allowed easy layups for the Cardinal and weren’t even boxing out.
Miller’s words clearly resonated with his team, which played against Cal (18-7, 9-4) on Saturday night, as if nobody’s starting spot was safe. The matchup featured the Pac-12’s two top defenses, and while the game was close throughout, No. 9 Arizona showed just why it is ranked as it maintained a lead for the entire second half. The Wildcats held Ivan Rabb to four points and stifled the Cal offense en route to a 62-57 win.
The first half was most interestingly defined by star players not being on the court as a result of foul trouble. Arizona’s Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen ─ both projected first-round draft picks for the 2017 NBA Draft ─ sat out 12 and 16 minutes of the half, respectively. Additionally, Cal’s big man Ivan Rabb ─ also a projected first-rounder ─ picked up his second foul and missed the final 10.
The two Wildcats were rather irrelevant during the time they played, with neither scoring, and their teammates easily made up for their absences. Rabb, however, played a significant role during his limited minutes, with an assist, a block and a layup fed by Sam Singer, and his absence toward the end of the half took a big toll on the Bears.
Cal’s offense was relatively static without Rabb to draw defensive attention, and the Bears were forced to depend on the three. They made five shots from downtown, compared to only four inside field goals in the half, a statistic that most coaches wouldn’t want to see.
Rabb’s defensive and rebounding prowess was even more sorely missed than his offense, and while Cal did briefly take a 20-17 lead with a 7-0 run after Rabb sat, Arizona went on a 7-0 run of its own to respond and ultimately close out the first half with a 34-25 lead.
The teams came out and Arizona immediately scored to expand to an 11-point lead, but Cal responded over the course of the next nine minutes to cut the Wildcat lead to four, 43-39.
The Cal offense, while able to keep pace with Arizona with scoring from various players, lacked point guard Charlie Moore, who didn’t play a single minute in the second half after sustaining a hip injury. Without their starting point guard, the Bears looked to Jabari Bird and Grant Mullins to continue their strong first-half performances, while Kameron Rooks also chipped in significantly.
Rabb was held to two points in the second half as he struggled to deal with the consistent, but expected, double-teams, and he was only single-covered when he received passes near the three-point line. Rabb has managed doubles well this season, swinging the ball out quickly, often to the benefit of perimeter shooters. But this time, the Arizona defense also tightly covered the closest perimeter option, and Rabb wasn’t very effective.
But without Moore, whose biggest strength is his ability to penetrate through opponents’ defenses, Cal’s ball movement was significantly limited, and without continued scoring by Mullins and Bird off screens, they would have been blown away.
Instead, the Bears hung around with their hosts for the rest of the game, keeping the lead below double digits but never reducing the deficit below four. Rabb’s dismal four points was a tie for his lowest output of the season. Bird finished with 19 on 6-12 shooting, while Mullins added 13 on 5-7.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]